Things have come a long way since 1999, when the actor Julia Roberts hit headlines globally for wearing a dress that exposed her unshaven armpits. These days, Gen Z pop stars, from Amandla Stenberg to Miley Cyrus, are regularly seen with body hair. Brands are cottoning on, too. Last year, Nike and No7 ran advertisements with models showing body hair (underarms and upper lip respectively). Even the ubiquitous advert trope of a woman shaving an already shaven leg was challenged by the razor company Billie, which had marketing collateral that showed underarm, leg and pubic hair.
In real life, however, the sight of a woman in public with body hair remains rare, although norms are slowly changing (almost one in four women under 25 no longer shave their armpits, compared with just one in 20 in 2013, according to the market analyst Mintel).
One campaign that is helping to continue this trend, and normalise body hair on women, is Januhairy, an initiative that encourages women to grow their body hair for the month of January and share images of themselves online. Started by students Laura Jackson and Ruby Jones in 2019, the campaign hashtag has now attracted thousands of posts from women across the world. As the end of this year’s Januhairy approaches, we meet the movement’s founders and others taking part to talk about how embracing their body hair has changed how they feel about themselves and their bodies.
‘When I see my body hair now, it reminds me of my love for myself’
Laura Jackson was a student at Exeter University when she first grew out her body hair. It was May 2018 and she was working on a one-woman stage show she had written and would perform in. “It was about the pressures put on women to abide by these beauty rules to feel accepted” she says. “As part of the show I grew out my body hair for the first time. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have that incentive.”
Girls are often introduced to depilatory products and techniques by relatives, borrowing razors and trying to imitate their mothers. Jackson recalls a conversation with her older sister: “I was in the back of the car and she saw my hairy legs and said: ‘Oh, it’s time you start shaving.”
She recalls a family holiday shortly after this, when she was in her early teens. “I was with my mum and we were in our swimming costumes and I saw some pubic hairs poking out of her costume. I was so horrified. I thought: ‘That is disgusting. How dare she not shave?’”
But for Jackson, growing out her body hair forced her to rethink her relationship to it. Soon she “felt liberated” and wanted to embrace it. “When I see my body hair now, it reminds me of my love for myself.”
She is keen to point out that Januhairy is not about shaming women who choose to remove body and facial hair. “Shave whenever you want to, but make sure you’re making the choice for you,” she says.“We have people who support Januhairy and shave, we have men who support us. It’s not just about hair, it’s about building a conversation around the subject.”
‘This movement has allowed me to reclaim what I was ashamed of as a kid’
Sonia, like many women of south-Asian heritage, has “grown up conscious of body hair my whole life”. Darker hair is more visible and requires more work to achieve a hairless look.
“Another beauty standard for south-Asian women is the focus on fair skin. I have black hair, so having dark body hair makes my skin look darker. Those two are linked. If you’re fair, you’re beautiful. Just look at Bollywood; all the actresses are fair.” When she was younger, school friends and relatives would often point out her body hair, with comments or offers to remove it. “Even as a baby I was really hairy,” she says. “People called me ‘mouseling’. My mum told me that my grandma performed a treatment on me using atta [a flour-and-water mix used to make chapattis] which she massaged all over my body and then removed to remove the hair. It would have been painful and I would have cried a lot, but it probably has removed a lot of the hair I would have had.
“As a teenager I had really low self-esteem,” she says. “I would spend time at home looking in the mirror, noticing hair in different places, such as my belly. I remember that when I was in year 9 one of the boys asked if I was doing Movember. That hurt because he went out of his way to say it.”
This is Sonia’s second year participating in Januhairy. “I’ve come to a point where I’m so much more comfortable in my own skin and in my own natural state,” she says, although she admits she still has her moments. “After last year I still wasn’t comfortable with my facial hair. I’m still not, but I’ve been trying to keep up with just growing it out. I found out that some of my boyfriend’s housemates were making comments pitying my boyfriend and saying they feel sorry for him, which was extremely upsetting.”
Despite this, she says: “This movement has allowed me to reclaim what I was ashamed of as a kid.”
Part of that growing acceptance is the increasing circulation of alternative images of women that campaigns such as Januhairy have helped to encourage. “Last year, most of the pictures were of underarms, but this year we’re seeing pubic regions and chest hair and other parts of the body.”
The importance of beauty is something she has been grappling with, though. “The body hair images we see are often still quite glamorous. And I wonder why is it that for something to be accepted and normalised, it has to be glamorised and made to seem beautiful. But maybe movements like this reframe what is beautiful.” She hopes that in the future women won’t have to toil so much to feel good about themselves.
‘I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my body through this process’
This is also Crystal Marchant’s second Januhairy. “The first campaign made a major impression on me. Now I carry the spirit of Januhairy with me throughout the whole year.”
Marchant is a transgender woman living in Montreal. She regularly posts about her journey, “to get visibility for the community and to try and inspire others”.
“I don’t speak for the trans community,” she says. “We all speak for ourselves – but I didn’t see any other trans girls participating. I felt embraced by this campaign and I embraced it right back.” Before her transition, she felt pressured not to remover her body hair to fit into a male world. Transitioning prompted her to think deeply about how she felt about the politics of female body hair. “I asked myself: ‘What do I actually want? What is the social pressure? And do I care? Do I agree with it?’”
For Marchant, as a trans woman, having visible body hair is something that has led to her being abused. “I have been harassed online and in person; people would swear at me, people would call me really derogatory things. People would misgender me: I got taken for male, female, nonbinary, all in one day. So there’s a social pressure to blend in. It can be dangerous. If I get misgendered too much, it can really mess with my moods and my self image.”
Now, she says she has “become a lot more comfortable in my body”. Last year, on the last day of Januhairy, “when my body hair was the longest and I had facial hair, I went to the community pool. I’m a swimmer, I love to do laps. So I put on my first ever bikini.” She describes the event as “anticlimactic … I just did my laps, came out, everything was fine. The point is, we’re all the odd one out. We’re all different.
“That’s why the campaign appealed to me; it’s not about saying I have to shave or not. It’s just about becoming more comfortable with your body and to do it with all these other people in solidarity. Everybody’s on their own unique quest and journey of self discovery. And I think it’s really beautiful.”
‘It’s about self-worth and love’
Boo has been growing out her body hair for several years but this is her first year posting online as part of Januhairy. “I’m an energy healer, and my ethnic background is Indian and West Indian, so I have always been obsessed with tribal cultures.” Her belief is that hair is an extension of the nervous system. “It’s protecting us. It’s baffling that we remove it.”
Boo says she was motivated by a realisation of how body hair removal is ingrained in society and how images circulated through media entrench this. “I believe people will accept what’s presented, but all you see through media and entertainment is one image telling people that’s what they should adhere to,” she says. That’s why she was inspired to join Januhairy and send out alternative images.
“I’m not saying every woman shouldn’t shave. I just want women to make informed decisions and ask themselves why they do it. It’s about self-worth and love. I don’t want there to be women shaving because they think they’re disgusting if they don’t. The fact that we’re making decisions based on toxic ideals really saddens me.”
But Boo’s relationship to body hair is also informed by losing her mother to cancer when she was 14, after a six-year battle. “On a subconscious level, I think another reason I grow out my hair is that I watched my mum lose her hair – and her eyebrows – twice. I just thought: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’
Boo’s father, she says, is “the biggest free spirit I know. He looks like he’s walked straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. We used to joke about who had the longest head hair and now we joke about the hair under our arms.” Boo says that having this male presence in her life has meant she never frets about the judgment of men about her body hair. “If I meet a man not as open- or high-minded as my father, I know that’s just that one man’s opinion.” Boo’s boyfriend has also been hugely supportive. “I know women fret about what their partners think, but if your boyfriend doesn’t accept you with hairy armpits, then get a new boyfriend.”
Day to day, Boo says she hasn’t had many issues since growing out her hair. The only difference she can tell is that she occasionally catches people staring. “But I don’t mind. I like to make people think.”
‘Now I use my energy on other things that make me happy’
Ruby Jones is co-founder of Januhairy, and teamed up with Laura Jackson in 2018 after the pair attended a panel talk discussing the politics of body hair. That same year, Jones developed a cerebrospinal fluid leak, which caused agonising pain every time she sat or stood. “Despite this, I used all my energy making sure I was smooth and hairless, even though I was barely leaving my bedroom.
“Going to the salon and getting my waxing done was so physically draining,” she says. “But I didn’t feel as if I had a choice.” Being open to having body hair has changed her life. “Now I can use that energy on other things that make me happy,” she says.
After the first Januhairy, Ruby went on to remove her body hair. “Straight away I missed it, and so decided to grow it out again.”
Mostly, people have been wholly accepting, including the people she is dating. “We are programmed to believe that others find body hair disgusting and repulsive, yet from my experience it’s really not a big deal at all.” She is nevertheless conscious of her own privileges as a young white woman, living in the liberal environment of a university. “You get the occasional comment online, one of the most notable was: ‘Being disabled is cool and all, but you really should shave your armpits, it’s very unhygienic. Do you even shower?’ Those comments are just one in a sea of positivity and love.”
One criticism of Januhairy is that it is a naval-gazing exercise that does little for vulnerable women and, as a movement, is quite individualistic. Jones does not agree. “Januhairy is both individualised and a mass-movement. The act of growing your hair is a very personal experience and each woman is going to have their own challenges. But in doing it with a group of people around the world, you stand in solidarity and become part of a community. I feel so proud of the women taking part in Januhairy who continue to make their own choices surrounding their bodies. It is a radical act to rebel against these pressures.”